The European Tour heads east this week for the D+D REAL Czech Masters in one of the continent’s most popular destinations - the picturesque capital city of Prague, home of the Albatross Golf Resort.
This is the third renewal of the event which has seen strong winners emerge in its brief history. Two years ago Jamie Donaldson used victory to confirm participation in the Ryder Cup and 12 months on Thomas Pieters made a long-awaited Tour breakthrough.
Always highly thought of the Belgian had struggled to cross the winning line and yet did so at a canter last August, using his prodigious length from the tee to blitz the par-fives in particular.
With victory close at hand his family drove through the night from Belgium to walk the course with him on Sunday, making it a week of long drives for everyone.
Pieters was so emboldened by his win that a mere two weeks later - on his next start - he added the KLM Open (in the Netherlands to the relief of his family).
The 24-year-old spent last week contending for a medal in the Olympic Golf Competition, eventually finishing solo fourth, but he makes the journey back to Prague to defend his title.
The European Tour’s August schedule is relatively low key in recent years, but Lee Westwood is playing, perhaps keen to prove himself in good enough form to warrant a Ryder Cup selection. It will make a neat side story and the presence of potential team-mates Matthew Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan will stir the pot.
There will be others, such as Lucas Bjerregaard and Eddie Pepperell, keen to emulate Pieters in using the event to break their winning duck at European Tour level.
Albatross Golf Resort, which was designed by Keith Preston, is a long, exposed and undulating par 72 with water in play at 4, 7, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18. It measures 7,467 yards (49 down on last year) but can be attacked: in 2015 Kenneth Ferrie birdied the first six holes in round one. Both winners played the par-fives in 12-under, figures no-one else in the field matched.
2016 Top 4 and stats
-20 Thomas Pieters (DD 1st, DA 27th, GIR 22nd, PA 1st)
-17 Pelle Edberg (DD 2nd, DA 20th, GIR 1st, PA 10th)
-16 Matthew Fitzpatrick (DD 19th, DA 12th, GIR 2nd, PA 5th)
-14 Robert Dinwiddie (DD 56th, DA 10th, GIR 4th, PA 7th)
2015 Top 4 and stats
-14 Jamie Donaldson (DD 23rd, DA 34th, GIR 2nd, PA 4th)
-12 Bradley Dredge (DD 31st, DA 44th, GIR 14th, PA 14th)
-11 Merrick Bremner (No stats given)
-11 Soren Kjeldsen (DD 63rd, DA 5th, GIR 14th, PA 15th)
Notes: With a course measuring nearly 7,500 yards it would appear to play into the hands of the bigger hitters and yet in 2015 that didn’t seem to be the case. However that was turned on its head 12 months ago as Thomas Pieters ate the yardage up and Edberg ran into second.
Previous events in the Czech Republic
With just the two tournaments hosted by Albatross it might be worth looking at recent events in the country. Prosper Golf Resort played host to three Czech Opens in the last ten years:
2011 1st Oliver Fisher, 2nd Mikael Lundberg, 3rd Fabrizio Zanotti
2010 1st Peter Hanson, T2nd Peter Lawrie, T2nd Gary Boyd
2009 1st Oskar Henningsson, T2nd Sam Little, T2nd Steve Webster
The conditions looks settled - high 70s throughout the week, maybe breaking into the low 80s, very little wind, humidity about 50% and sunny. The only imminent threat to that is Sunday which could see high 60s and rain.
The Leading Contenders
What’s not to like about the Belgian’s chances of defending his title? He hit it further and made fewer putters than anyone in the field last year which proved to be a potent combination as he destroyed the course and notched a three-shot victory. This summer he has been consistent without threatening to win - until last week in the Olympics when shooting rounds of 67-66-77-65 to finish fourth. The 77 aside he was eating the course up in a manner reminiscent of his win 12 months ago. Has to be good prep for the defense.
The Englishman has had an enigmatic year, but arrives off 8 weekends of golf. Those 8 weeks have been sparsely thrown about the schedule (the first of them was when he was second at Augusta National) and on the whole he has focussed on the premier events. Perhaps this trip east is inspired by the refocus, post-majors, on the Ryder Cup. He contended at the US Open, as well as Masters, and on that form he cannot be overlooked in this field. Top ranked in the field at 9th on the Race to Dubai and boasts two top ten finishes in the Czech Republic back in the mid-90s.
Currently pencilled in to make a Ryder Cup debut, but nonetheless right on the cut mark. What will concern him are two considerations: not only is he fighting to remain on the team by right, he is also desperate to rediscover the consistency that got him there in the first place. Overlooking his 9th in the recent Paul Lawrie Match Play, he has only one top 45 finish in his last 11 starts - but the fact it was a win in the Nordea Masters was some consolation. Third here 12 months ago when ranked second for Greens in Regulation.
The Englishman has been measured up for his Ryder Cup apparel and is ready to make his debut next month. Since missing the cut in the Irish Open in May he is 7-for-7, including 6 top 25 finishes (top 6s in the Scottish and French Opens and T12 in the Open Championship). That form would work well against this field. The only concern is that he finished T52 on the course in 2014 when he found plenty of fairways (ranked 3rd for Driving Accuracy) but struggled to use that to his advantage, ranking 25th for GIR.
The Scot has not played the course, but he is 3-for-3 in the Czech Republic, albeit without a top 25 finish. A class act at his best, this season has been a struggle, with the T9 (in reality a defeat in the round of 16) at the Paul Lawrie his only top ten finish. Indeed you have to venture back to July last year for his last stroke play top ten (at the Scottish Open). However, it might be worth noting that three of his six career wins have come in the month of August.
A neat and simple package for this week. He has the course form: T5 in 2014 and then T22 12 months later, on both occasions ranking top ten for Greens in Regulation, suggesting the course really does fit his eye. Current form? Tick that too because he was T6 last time out in the King’s Cup in Thailand. The doubters will point out that he spurned a great opportunity to win that event with a calamitous finish, but a strong fantasy pick.
A winner in the Czech Republic back in 2010 when using this event much as Jamie Donaldson did two years ago to confirm his Ryder Cup ticket. The Swede pegs plenty of greens so his game should be a fit for this track, given that’s how Donaldson claimed victory, and yet Hanson bailed out with a missed cut on first sight last year. He arrived at the Irish Open on a run of 10-for-10, but is 2-for-6 since with no top 20.
Ended 2015 with victory in the Thailand Golf Championship, an Asian Tour event with a strong field of world stars, but a self-inflicted gardening injury soon followed and he’s not quite been the same since. Indeed 19 starts have reaped a best of T10 at the Irish Open. More recently 2-for-6 without a top 40. But the good vibes of his win here two years ago, up against a lower grade field than he’s competed with more recently, might see him recapture some form this week.
At 26th in the Race to Dubai the Welshman is the fourth ranked golfer in this week’s field. He also has great vibes about the course (he was second here in 2014, T40 last year) and also maybe the month of August because in he is 17-for-19 on the European Tour between 2005 and 2015, with no less than nine top ten finishes (three of them runner-up).
The Englishman is 4-for-4 in the Czech Republic, with finishes of T30 and T34 at Albatross Golf Resort. He may also have fond memories of 12 months ago because it was a solid week here which fostered good feeling ahead of his trip further east to the Russian Open, which he won, before finishing runner-up in the KLM Open. Patchy form through the summer, but has two top four finishes this term and is a confirmed winner in this grade of event.
The Next Rung
The American has logged finishes of T19 and T22 at Albatross Golf Resort in the last two years, both times lying in the top ten after 54 holes before drifting backwards on the final day. This season he recorded four top 20 finishes up to early May but since then has struggled, but his T24 in the King’s Cup offers some hope of a return to form (albeit he was T8 at halfway before going backwards, something of a theme).
If it is going to need another strong performance on the par-fives this week, Lombard ranks 8th in the field in that category over the last three months on the European Tour. Will take heart from Pieters’ breakthrough because he’s had three 54-hole leads this season (plus a T2) and is yet to lift a title. If he can string 72 holes together has to be a big chance this week, but might be a worry that he missed the cut on the Sunshine Tour two weeks ago after shooting 82-79.
He was 7-for-19 heading to the Paul Lawrie Match Play with not one top 20 finish to his name. Then he played lovely golf at Archerfield Links to make the semi-finals and eventually finish fourth: season well and truly turned around. And perfect timing too because the Essex man might have a MC-T40 record at Albatross Golf Resort, but he was a winner of the Czech Open in 2011.
Like Fisher a native of Essex, the 26-year-old is enjoying the best year of his career and by some margin as top 12 finishes in the Open Championship, Open de France and Irish Open have vaulted him to 48th in the Race to Dubai. Ranks T6 in this field on par-five performance in the last three months. More trivially his last 8 outings have seen a top 20 followed by a missed weekend, repeated three times, suggesting he‘s due another top 20.
The quirky Swede had to be considered after his solo second 12 months ago, when after shooting 66-67-67 he didn’t fail in the final round, rather he stalled in pegging a 71. He has made the top 30 just three times this year, when T20 in Qatar and then went twice in the top 6 in Thailand, most recently at the end of last month.
In his fourth year on Tour and the young German has pegged nine top tens in building a reputation not a million miles away from that of Pieters. The most recent of those was when making the quarter-finals at the Paul Lawrie Match Play and although this is his tournament debut he does have a fourth place finish in the Czech Republic on the Challenge Tour.
The Dane had five top tens last year in finishing a career high 34th on the Race to Dubai, but has made just the one this season to currently lie 78th. Ranked ninth for Driving Distance on Tour he’ll seem like the perfect fit for the course for many, being like Pieters last year in being promising and big-hitting, but he’s missed the cut twice at the course, and not broken 72 once, which will dent the confidence.
Another with the apparent perfect profile. The rookie ranks second for Driving Distance this season and is second only to Seve Benson in par-five performance over the last three months. He’s ranked 81st in the Race to Dubai, has five top 25 finishes and was T4 in a Czech Republic Challenge Tour event. The worry might be that he hasn’t made a top 25 since the Nordea Masters in early June.
The veteran Englishman is quietly 39th on the Race to Dubai thanks to ten top 30 finishes and he ranks fourth for Stroke Average this season of players in this field to have played at least 15 rounds. He was 11th in the 2011 Czech Open, but managed only T60-MC at Albatross Golf Resort.
Completely left-field but with sneaky good reasons. He has played just three events on the European Tour this year (early on in South Africa) but that (very) limited evidence has left him 8th in the Stroke Averages, 20th in Driving Distance and 4th in Putt Average. His form on the Challenge Tour has been poor through the summer but he opened with a 67 in Sweden two weeks ago and was T5 heading into the final round (finished T21). Clincher? His girlfriend is a Paralympic competitor so he has taken a very keen interest in the Olympics and might be inspired by compatriot Justin Rose.
Who’s On The Team
The only downside with Thomas Pieters is wondering about jetlag, but I’ll go with him and add Lee Westwood whose class and Ryder Cup motivation should ensure a strong week.
Andy Sullivan’s form in stronger events than this demand his inclusion, joined by the consistency and freaky August form of Bradley Dredge.
Completing the team with two young Englishmen. The first is Matthew Southgate, whose par five performance is strong and whose best this season would see him contend. This time last year he was recovering from cancer surgery and returned to action in the Russian Open where he performed well - perhaps the trip east will prompt good memories.
The second is Eddie Pepperell who has the course and current form, plus the brains to cope with his blowout in Thailand.
One To Fade
Long-hitting Lucas Bjerregaard seems to have the profile for this test, but his inability to prove it on two visits, plus the fact that he has carded a 74 or worse in 9 of his last 10 starts puts me off.